The Theology of Paul

What you usually hear about Jesus today in churches and on TV is an interpretation that comes from the writings of a man named Paul who called himself an “apostle” (messenger) but was not among Jesus’ “twelve” disciples who are also called “apostles.”

Paul’s ideas about Jesus are found in letters which he wrote to churches and which were later included in the book called the “New Testament.”

Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, lived during and after the time of Jesus but Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in some kind of mystical “vision” after the time of Jesus. From his “vision” of Jesus, Paul became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish “messiah” (“christos” in Greek) whom Paul believed would become the ruler (“lord”) of all humanity, not just the “kingdom of Israel.”

Paul referred to Jesus by the title of “christos.” The English word “Christ” in the New Testament is a transliteration of the Greek word “christos” (a verbal adjective meaning “anointed”) which, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew word “mashiach” (a participle which also means “anointed”). “Mashiach” (“anointed” one) refers to someone who is chosen for a special purpose, such as a king. Mashiach is sometimes expressed in Greek as “messias” or in English as “messiah.”

Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the term “christos” is used as a title for Jesus. Jesus (the) Christ simply means Jesus “the anointed one.” Eventually the followers of Jesus became known as “Christians.”

What did Paul believe about Jesus, and how did Paul’s ideas become dominant in Christian churches?

Although Paul considered Jesus to be God’s Son, “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to God “the Father.” Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one lord (ruler), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Corinthians 8:6). “When all things are subjected to him (Jesus), then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him (God) who put all things under him (Jesus), that God may be everything to everyone” (I Corinthians 15:28).

Paul believed that Jesus was the means by which God “the Father” created “all things” and humankind. Paul’s belief reflects the influence of Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that a “logos” (a creative intelligence, or “mind”) created the order of the world. (The unknown writer of the book of John claimed that Jesus was this “logos” in John 1:1-14.) Paul was from the city of Tarsus where Greek ideas were well known.

Paul began preaching that Jesus was the “messiah” (Christos) whom the Jews were expecting but he immediately ran into a problem. The Jews were not expecting their messiah to be crucified. According to the book of Acts, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the (Hebrew) scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3).

Paul’s theory about why Jesus had to die is explained in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Paul used the story of “Adam and Eve” in the Hebrew book of Genesis to explain the origin of sin and death. “Therefore sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Then Paul wrote that people are saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross (his crucifixion). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ (Jesus) died for us. Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). Paul’s explanation of the death of Jesus was in terms of a blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

In the days in which Jesus lived and Paul wrote, the Jews had a complicated sacrificial system in their religion. The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible describes the kinds of sacrifices that were offered in the temple at Jerusalem to “atone” for sins, committed knowingly and unknowingly.

For sins committed knowingly against one’s neighbor, restitution was required and a “ram (male sheep) without blemish” was sacrificed in the temple as a guilt offering “to make atonement for him (the sinner) before the Lord, and he (the sinner) shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7).

The offering of a sacrifice was considered an act of obedience to God. Paul used this “sacrifice” analogy to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of obedience to God to atone for the the sins of humankind. Paul wrote, “For as by one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s (Jesus’) obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

According to Paul, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (sought after), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name (authority or status) which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord (ruler), to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:5-11).

Paul concluded that salvation from sin and death comes to individuals who accept Jesus as “lord” and believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote, “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The idea that Jesus was “sinless” came from Paul. Paul wrote, “For our sake He (God) made him (Jesus) to be (a sacrifice for) sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). A later writer in the book of First Peter (in the New Testament) referred to Jesus as “a lamb without blemish or spot.” “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (First Peter 1:18-19). This is clearly a reference to the sacrifice of a “ram without blemish” described in the book of Leviticus.

Paul called his message the “gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). Paul summarized his “gospel” in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethen at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

Paul’s “gospel” can be summarized as follows:

(1) “Christ died for our sins” — The penalty for sin is death but Jesus is God’s divine and sinless Son who died on the cross to pay the death penalty on behalf of humankind.

(2) “He (Jesus) was raised on the third day” — God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and gave him authority as “lord” (ruler) over all humankind, and whoever “confesses that Jesus is lord” and “believes that God raised him from the dead” will be saved from sin and death.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? It should because Paul’s theology became dominant in the Christian movement. Paul preached for about 30 years after the time of Jesus. He spread his views through his missionary journeys in many countries and he wrote letters to the young churches that he established or visited. His letters were kept and circulated among the early Christians.

Paul had very little success in convincing the Jews of Asia Minor and Greece that Jesus was the Jewish messiah so Paul turned his attention to Gentiles (non-Jews) who were attracted to Paul’s idea of “eternal life” through accepting Jesus as “lord.” Paul believed that Gentiles could become Christians without converting to Judaism with its requirements of circumcision and dietary laws.

In 66 AD, the Jews revolted against the Romans in an effort to liberate the kingdom of Israel. The Christians in Jerusalem saw what was happening and fled east across the Jordan river to Pella and other places. In 70 AD, the Romans crushed the revolution by destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Throughout the years, Jerusalem had been the headquarters for the Christians who were closest to Jesus, such as Peter, James, and others. Christians in Jerusalem considered themselves within Judaism. They had serious doubts about Paul and sometimes opposed him.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the influence of Jewish Christians began to decline. The churches in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and other places where Paul had spread his version of the “gospel” took over the leadership of the Christian movement. These churches were mostly in “Hellenized” areas where Greek culture and ideas had flourished since the days of Alexander the Great. The Christian movement began to establish its identity as a religion separate from its Jewish roots. But the movement carried with it the terminology which Paul used in his interpretation of the significance of Jesus.

Between 70 AD and 100 AD, four unknown writers collected whatever could be found or remembered about the life and teachings of Jesus. These writings became the books known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. It is in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that we come closest to the teachings of Jesus in his parables and discover the “gospel of Jesus” which is very different from the “gospel of Paul.”

The book of John, which was written about 100 C.E., reflects Paul’s view that Jesus was God’s divine “Son” who lived with God in heaven before coming to the Earth.

Understanding the Four Gospels

We do not know who wrote the “Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are in the New Testament. When these books were written, it was a common practice for authors to attribute their writings to well-known persons to lend “authority” to the writings. Matthew and John were two of the original disciples of Jesus. Luke was a physician who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Mark, who was also named John, was the son of a woman named Mary who had a house in Jerusalem. Mark, who was an acquaintance of the disciple Peter, also accompanied Paul and Barnabas on some of their missionary journeys.

Since it is customary to refer to the writers of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by these names, I will follow this custom. We know that Mark wrote his book first because both Matthew and Luke quote Mark in their books, sometimes word for word, and sometimes with editorial changes and additions.

Mark and Matthew wrote their books strictly from a Jewish point-of-view, claiming that Jesus was the Jewish messiah (“anointed one”) whom the Jews were expecting to liberate the Jews from their Roman rulers and reestablish an independent “Kingdom of Israel” (also known as the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven”) on earth.

Luke (who also wrote the book called “The Acts of the Apostles,”) wrote “The Gospel According to Luke” reflecting the viewpoint of Paul who was a “hellenized” Jew (a Jew whose views reflected a mix of Greek culture and Jewish culture). Although Paul viewed Jesus as the Jewish “messiah,” Paul invited Gentiles (non-Jews) to accept Jesus as God’s “anointed” ruler (“lord”) of the entire world, not just the Kingdom of Israel.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke apparently wrote their books after 70 C.E. (Christian Era or Common Era) because all three books make reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 C.E. after the Jews revolted against the Romans beginning in 66 C.E. These books were written at a time of crisis in the Christian movement. Most of the earlier followers of Jesus were dead. Peter and Paul are believed to have died between 60 and 65 C.E. These early followers had expected Jesus to reappear on earth as the “messiah” during their lifetimes.

Paul expected Jesus to return during Paul’s lifetime to transform the world. About 53 C.E., Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealing with it. For the form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:29-31).

About 50 C.E., Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that WE WHO ARE ALIVE, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those (Christians) who are asleep (dead). For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; and THEN WE WHO ARE ALIVE, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:15-17).

It appears that Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their books between 70 C.E. and 80 C.E. These books were written at a time when some of the Christians had begun to wonder why Jesus had not returned as expected. Mark (in the 13th chapter) addresses this question, and Matthew (in the 24th chapter) and Luke (in the 21st chapter) give the same explanations, based on what Mark had written.

If you will consult a good “Harmony of the Gospels**” showing Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 in parallel columns, you will see that these chapters describe conditions that existed after the Romans had destroyed the Jewish temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In reading these chapters, always read Mark first, and then Matthew and Luke. The changes and additions by Matthew and Luke will become apparent to the reader, and the fact that Matthew and Luke are largely copying Mark will be evident too. (**A Harmony of the Gospels by Ralph D. Heim, Fortress Press)

The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem had made some of the Christians wonder whether Jesus was truly the Jewish messiah. The chapters, mentioned above, begin with Jesus “predicting” the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and claiming that this was an event that would precede the return of Jesus as messiah.

Then Jesus “predicted” that there would be “wars and rumors of wars,” the persecution of the Christians by the Jews and civil authorities, conflicts within families, and the appearance of “false messiahs” before the return of Jesus as the true Jewish messiah. Of course, these things were already happening at the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing their “gospels.” At the end of these chapters, Matthew, Mark, and Luke claim that Jesus reassured his disciples with these words, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Then the statement is added (by Mark and Matthew), “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Whether this last sentence was intended to be from Jesus, or was a commentary by the writer, is not known. Nevertheless, the intent of adding this sentence is clear: the Christians should continue to expect Jesus to return during “this generation,” but the exact day and hour were unknown.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their books to reassure the Christians that Jesus was the messiah expected by the Jews, so the Christians should remain steadfast in their belief. By the time that John wrote his book (probably between 90 C.E. and 100 C.E.), all of the original followers of Jesus were probably dead, including the “beloved disciple” who apparently was a resource to the writer of John. This is implied in the closing chapter of John, where the writer states, “The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, (Jesus said) ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The “I” refers to the writer of the book, and distinguishes the “writer” from the “disciple” who provided “his testimony” as a source of information to the writer.

Since Matthew and Luke had the book of Mark as a resource, these three books show a similarity and are known as the “synoptic” (see-alike) gospels.” The central theme of Jesus’ teachings in these books concerned the “Kingdom of God” on earth, as described in the parables of Jesus. The book of John appears to have been written later, after the Christian movement had become established in the “hellenized” (Greek-influenced) part of the world, where Gentiles (non-Jews) were predominant. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make a few references to “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25, 18:18) but it was Paul who introduced the hellenized (Greek-influenced) part of the world to the idea that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The writer of the book of John interprets Jesus from a Greek viewpoint. The writer is obviously familiar with Greek philosophy because Jesus is presented as the incarnation of the “logos.” Six hundred years before the time of Jesus, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus used the Greek word “logos” to refer to the “mind” or rational power of God that created the world by bringing order out of chaos (as reflected in John 1:1-3). Other Greek philosophers viewed the “logos” as giving “intelligence” to human beings (as reflected in John 1:4 and 1:9). (NOTE: Unfortunately, in John 1:1 and 1:14, the Greek term “logos” is translated as “word” which is its literal meaning in English but the Greek philosophical meaning of “logos” as the “mind of God” is lost by such an English translation.)

The book of John describes Jesus as teaching God’s “truth” which human beings should follow in living as God intends for people to live. It is by following this truth or “light” that human beings experience life which Jesus described as “eternal” and “abundant.”

Although John viewed Jesus from a non-Jewish viewpoint, John claims that a disciple who was an eyewitness to Jesus was a resource for the book of John. The writer referred to this disciple as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you'” (John 21:20). The book of John refers several times to this disciple “whom Jesus loved” but never names him.

Although the book of John interprets Jesus in terms of Greek philosophy, it is evident that the writer had “inside information” that could have come only from an eyewitness to Jesus. The book provides specific details about the disciples of Jesus and the events in Jesus’ life that appear to be more realistic than the descriptions given in the synoptic books. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke report a “voice from heaven” came at Jesus’ baptism, declaring that Jesus was God’s “beloved Son.” But John wrote that it was John the Baptist who declared that Jesus was “the Son of God” when Jesus was baptized. John’s version of this story is obviously more realistic. There are other examples like this to support John’s claim to having an eyewitness as a resource.

Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write from different viewpoints, what is consistent in the four books is the message of Jesus that it is God’s will for people to love God and love each other as we love ourselves. Jesus refers to this message as God’s word, or truth, or commandment, or will, and those who accept this, as evidenced by how a person lives, will experience life as it is intended to be, and is described by the concept of “entering the Kingdom of God” on earth.

It is important to know the different viewpoints or perspectives from which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write because by knowing this, we can identify and disregard some of the writers’ own commentaries and interpretations that only give their personal views about Jesus.

As we read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we must focus on discovering the “message” of Jesus that has relevance for us as we live today. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not agree on who Jesus was, but the truth that we should live by love for God and each other cannot be missed by anyone who does not get lost in the writers’ personal views about who Jesus was.

As you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you should be aware that much of what is written was intended to convince readers about “who Jesus was.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke intended to “prove” that Jesus was the “messiah” expected by the Jews. They used stories of “miracles” performed by Jesus as “signs” of his messiahship, and they quoted writings (taken out of context) from the Hebrew Bible to show that Jesus fulfilled alleged “prophecies” concerning the expected messiah. There is no need to believe that these “miracles” really happened or that these alleged “prophecies” related to Jesus because history has proved that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah. The miracle stories and the alleged prophecies have become irrelevant.

John used Greek philosophy concerning the “logos” in an effort to convince readers to believe that Jesus was the one and only divine “Son of God” with the power to grant “eternal life” to his followers (John 17:1-2). John has Jesus describe himself as having lived before the world was created (John 17:5) because, in Greek philosophy, the “logos” existed as the mind of God that created the world. All of this is found in the book of John when Jesus spoke at his “last supper” with his disciples. But the writers of the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record nothing of such words by Jesus at that “last supper.” The idea that Jesus was the incarnated “logos” was totally foreign to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

History has proved that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah expected by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul during their lifetimes. And there is no reason to believe that Jesus was the “incarnation” of the “logos” found in Greek philosophy, as proposed by John who wrote “And the Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But in their collection of parables and other sayings attributed to Jesus, the writers of the “four gospels” have preserved many “truths” that can be confirmed by our own observation, experience, and reasoning. And many of these “teachings of Jesus” have provided guidance and inspiration for many persons who have discovered for themselves what Jesus meant by “the truth will make you free.” As Christian Deists, we are followers of the human Jesus who described himself simply as “a man who told you the truth” (John 8:40).

There has never been agreement on “who Jesus was,” among New Testament writers, church councils, and theologians, and it is not likely that there ever will be agreement. Fortunately, from a Christian Deist viewpoint, the importance of Jesus is in his teachings. The “truths” that Jesus taught must stand (or fall) on their own individual merits. And you, the reader, must judge that for yourself.

As you read the “four gospels,” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I hope that this essay will help you “separate the wheat from the chaff.”